Sunday, August 19, 2012
Verdi/Wagner Rivalry Part II (The Music)
It is surprising that Verdi and Wagner were both born in the same year, but it is not surprising that they were musical rivals. The music of these two Romantic geniuses could not be more different from one another. The musical language of Verdi versus Wagner is basically like the difference between night and day when compared side by side. Both composers were melodic, but entirely different as far as text setting. It is fair to say that Wagner was more into the text, Verdi more into the melody. That is not to say that Verdi was not interested in the text. It is just a matter of what had priority. The same comparison can be made with the lieder or Brahms versus Wolf. Brahms was first about the melody, Wolf was about the text. The use of the orchestra in the drama could not be more different with Verdi versus Wagner. A Wagner opera could be one big symphony if the voices were not included. The voices tell the story over the symphony in Wagner's operas. Mahler's 8th symphony is like a condensed version of a Wagner opera. Verdi's orchestration is almost strictly an accompanying device. Verdi's overtures are excerpted in concert, because they are written for the orchestra to introduce the action and mood of the opera. Wagner was perfectly capable of writing an Italian melody with the orchestra serving as an accompanying device. Wolfram's famous song of the evening star from "Tannhauser" is a prime example of that. So is Wintersturme from "Die Walkure." An aria normally has a beginning, a middle and a end, and there is applause at the end of the aria. Verdi sets things up in exactly that way. Wagner keeps the music going after "Wintersturme", right into Sieglinde's continuation of the scene. Wagner did not write arias as big show pieces from 1843, the year that "The Flying Dutchman" was premiered until the end of his composition career with "Parsifal", with the exception of the Tannhauser aria I mentioned. The character of Wolfram is a lyric baritone. A lot of Italian baritones used to record that aria in Italian. As far as vocal writing, both composers were extremely demanding of their singers. I would imagine pitch was lower in their life times. Verdi liked to write very high tessitura for singers, especially baritones and mezzo-sopranos. Wagner did not write as high, but his roles can be extremely long. Wotan is the longest role in all operatic repertoire. Both composers are voice killers for singers who are not cut out to sing their operas. A tenor that is too light for "Siegfried" will have vocal problems pretty fast. Same for a light tenor who tries to sing Verdi's title role in "Otello." Verdi constantly challenges the singer's upper range. Pitch is very important in Verdi's music, and that is why he wrote so high for singers. When I am looking at a Verdi aria, or listening to one, I notice that most high notes are on words that are adjectives or nouns. The climax is the high note in Verdi's arias and ensembles. With Wagner's vocal writing this is not necessarily the case. Occasionally it is, but not often. That is not to say that Wagner did not write high tessitura, because he certainly did, but he did not confine singers up there like Verdi did. Wagner's use of the leitmotif in his Ring Cycle is unbelievable. Verdi very rarely used leitmotifs. He used one for Amneris in "Aida" but does not vary it in totality or invert it like Wagner. Verdi wrote great music to set up arias or scenes, but did not use identification tags for characters or ideas like Wagner did. Verdi wrote a great clarinet solo which proceeds the tenor aria in Act II. That solo is describing how the character of Don Alvaro is feeling. Or, better yet tells the audience that he's sad or whatever. Wagner's leitmotifs introduce characters and ideas, and foreshadow future events, or reflect on the past and present. Both Verdi and Wagner were tremendously influential on later composers. Both Verdi and Wagner influenced Puccini. Puccini uses leitmotifs in "Tosca." Scarpia's leitmotif is right smack at the beginning of the show. Verdi's use of the chorus strongly influenced a number of composers after him, such as Puccini, Mascagni, and Britten to name a few. Wagner's influence carries into movies. Movies such as "Psycho", "Vertigo", and "Star Wars" use leitmotifs. It is abundantly clear with the Imperial March in "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." John Williams uses leitmotifs a lot in his music. Luke Skywalker has a theme, and there is also a force theme. Verdi's influence was instrumental in defining the baritone and mezzo soprano voices are their own separate categories. Both composers wrote music that could not be more different. The one thing they did have in common was their incredible influence on other composers.